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Studio One: Man Under Glass (1958)
"Man Under Glass" is unique story about "live" television
The Studio One production of "Man Under Glass" is certainly unique since it's a "live" television drama portraying the exact same medium. The story involves a much-reviled TV director, played by Albert Salmi at his histrionic best, who's on the verge of a nervous breakdown. He covers up his shortcomings and precarious mental state by screaming at his cast, his crew, and anyone else he happens to bump into. Salmi's character (called Lenny Shanks) purposely and foolishly leads an understudy on (a very young and pre-"Bonanza" Michael Landon) with false hopes, ridicules an old movie star trying to make a comeback (Jason Robards Sr.) and treats his main assistant, played by Peggy Ann Garner, like a despised ex-wife. Patrick McNee of "The Avengers" fame, is also in the cast as the only sane person in the director's "glass" booth. With its chaotic setting and flaring tempers, "Man Under Glass" exposes the nerve-wracking tensions that can exist on the set during the taping of a live TV broadcast. There can be absolutely no mistakes and everything has to be timed perfectly for it to work. Shank, with his head-filled neuroses, is the last person who should be in charge of directing this kind of production. In the end, he collapses in a heap but is given a reprieve and some much-needed comfort from his understanding assistant, Ms. Garner. A strait-jacket might have worked better for him. "Man Under Glass" gives its talented cast a workout and its frenetic pace firmly plants it in the reality of 1950s live television. As for Albert Salmi, he actually had severe psychological problems in his own life. He killed his wife and then himself in 1990.
"The Grass is Greener" is poignant episode with a message
"Father Knows Best" was the best family comedy/drama series of the 1950s and its episodes were far more progressive and realistic than modern critics have given the show credit for. Each one usually carried an important message about growing up, family relations and how to interact with people of all types. The "Father" Jim Anderson, played by veteran star Robert Young, didn't always know best and many of the episodes featured him learning life's lessons---sometimes the hard way. Case in point, this one titled "The Grass is Greener." The Anderson family gets all excited to find out that Father is going to be mentioned on TV because one of his close college buddies is being interviewed. As it turns out, this man has become an industry titan and so is everyone else he talks about---with the exception of one person. The only one lacking supreme monetary success is (you guessed it) Jim Anderson. This leaves the Anderson kids a bit perplexed and they start to see their father as a failure in life. By the end of the running time of this episode, they learn that money isn't everything and that their father has something that money can't buy: a wonderful and very loving family. This fact isn't lost on their father either and after some sulking and self-evaluation, he sees himself in a whole new light. This may seem like a simple lesson but it is presented with enough reality and clarity to overcome any critical evaluation from even the most hardened cynic. This type of story was a staple for the series and belies its reputation as being merely a show about an "ideal family." The Andersons were certainly a close-knit group and none of them were getting arrested, but they were hardly an "ideal family." The show lasted six years and then was aired three more years in prime time with reruns. That longevity had everything to do with its material and characterizations. It almost goes without saying that "Father Knows Best" was a ratings winner and its episodes were well-written and confidently well-acted. Today's viewers could find plenty to like by re-visiting this classic series from a bygone era. It was always better than advertised.
A Bucket of Blood (1959)
"A Bucket of Blood" is first Black Comedy from Corman
Before there was "The Little Shop of Horrors," there was "A Bucket of Blood" a year earlier. Dick Miller, the hungry flower-eater in the former film is the star of "A Bucket..." He plays Walter Paisley, an inept moronic busboy who works at a very hip beatnik coffee shop and dreams of becoming one of the artists who frequent the establishment. Through a quirk of fate, it doesn't take very long before Walter joins this select group of pretentious phonies. He accidentally kills his landlady's cat and then covers it with plaster to hide his boneheaded mistake. When this "masterpiece" somehow makes its way to the beatnik haunt, Walter is soon hailed as the next great sculptor of the 20th century. Carla (played by Barboura Morris) becomes his chief benefactor and enthusiastically encourages him to take up sculpture as a career. But for Walter to create more "great art," he needs more dead bodies. Future game-show host Bert Convy is unfortunately next on the list. The body count piles up until Walter is finally revealed for what he really is: not only a complete idiot, but a criminally insane one. "A Bucket of Blood" is played mostly for laughs by director Roger Corman, and with its shoestring budget, he really has no choice. Ed Nelson, later of "Peyton Place," shows up as a nosy cop investigating the demise of poor Mr. Convy. I don't think Ed ever wanted this one to pop up on his resume. Lead actor Dick Miller was assigned to mostly bit parts after this "classic" although he later appeared in the original "Terminator" as the fellow who sells firearms to the wrong guy. Ms. Morris, who had some potential as an actress, died relatively young. Of course, Corman went on to make a slew of biker movies and adapted a number of Edgar Allan Poe works that probably made that literary master roll over in his own grave. But longevity has a way of making one respectable. Corman is now hailed as a great innovator of the cinema and was recently featured on TCM. I guess if you can make a movie like "A Bucket of Blood" in less than a week and for $50,000, you deserve some notoriety. Yes, Corman was the king of the "B" movies in the 1960s. But he never made anything that came within a country mile of an "A" film. When all is said and done, Corman will probably be best remembered for being the first director to give Jack Nicholson a role.
"Final Arrangements"...but for who?
Martin Balsam plays the ultimate henpecked husband. His wife, played by Vivian Nathan, is a snarling unsympathetic invalid who blames him for her medical condition and everything else that goes wrong in her selfish world. According to her, Balsam doesn't make enough money, and worse, doesn't even take responsibility for her well-being and happiness. But then, Vivian is only really happy when she's nagging her husband to death. She also complains about her husband's daydreaming and obsession with traveling. In reality, Balsam doesn't make enough money to take a trip out-of-state. But there is an answer to his problems. Old Martin decides that there is only one course of action. He visits the local funeral home where he tells the director (O.Z. Whitehead) that he will need a casket and the best arrangements possible for someone who will be leaving this earthly world. After a brief stop at an old novelty shop (run by Slim Pickens), he decides not to buy the poison dart gun. There's a much better alternative to put someone to permanent sleep and rat poison purchased at a nearby pharmacy soon becomes his weapon of choice. After all, his wife never goes to bed without drinking her glass of milk.
"Final Arrangements," directed by the prolific Gordon Hessler (later a Hitchcock series producer), is well-crafted with a nice little twist at the end. It isn't entirely unexpected considering poor Martin's circumstances. The parts are all played to perfection, especially Ms. Nathan's nagging and pitiless wife. She'd drive any man over the edge. It's a wonder that her husband lasted as long as he did. As it turns out, there is a "happy" ending.
Flamingo Road (1949)
"Flamingo Road" is star-vehicle for Joan Crawford
"Flamingo Road" (1949) is a turgid drama involving crooked southern politicians, equally crooked policemen and women of ill-repute. It drives its points home with a sledgehammer and has plenty of fun doing it. It's also the perfect star-vehicle for Joan Crawford in her prime movie-making years. Similar to many of her other roles, Joan plays Lane Bellamy, a down-and-out waitress seeking a better life. But Joanie runs into more hard luck when she's deemed a persona-non-grata by the local police chief, played by Sidney Greenstreet at his snarling best. Old Sidney is a king-maker when it comes to state politics and he's groomed weak-willed Zachary Taylor to be the next governor. Unfortunately, Zach has fallen hard for Joan, so she's soon picked up on a fraudulent morals charge and thrown into the slammer. Out of sight and out of mind, is Greenstreet's thinking. This does not help Mr. Taylor, however, as he hits the bottle with a vengeance now that his sweetheart is out of the picture. But Joan is released from jail after 30 days and eventually hooks up with multi-millionaire David Brian. He's also politically involved and stands directly in Greenstreet's way to obtain more graft and influence. So Sidney decides that Dave and Joan both have to go. But being the resourceful woman she is, Joan is all for beating Sid to the punch. In the meantime, Zachary Taylor, after being discarded by his mentor Greenstreet, drinks himself into a stupor and kills himself. His death doesn't make much sense except to tie up a loose end of the plot as the showdown between Sidney and Joan races to its inevitable conclusion. You don't have to be a fortune teller to figure out who comes out on top during that encounter. "Flamingo Road" was a hit with the public and Ms. Crawford continued with these types of characters (and films) until they wore out their welcome. Director Michael Curtiz may have been "slumming" when he made this movie, but he probably collected a nice paycheck in the process. Gladys George has a small but pivotal part as the savvy matron of a local road house. Fred Clark also appears as a newspaper writer who actually thinks that honest politicians exist. He's the only one in this film that holds that opinion. There's plenty of drinking, understated sex and carousing going on in "Flamingo Road." The best line is delivered by David Brian. "Having fun is like an insurance policy. The older you get, the more it costs." That was true in 1949 and is still true today.
Fighting Father Dunne (1948)
"Fighting Father Dunne" based on real-life character
Pat O'Brien, a Warner Brothers contract player for years, had long left that studio when he made this film for RKO Studios in 1948. It was a role that O'Brien could do in his sleep for he had played countless Catholic priests in the past. This movie, based on the career of real-life character Father Peter Dunne, is a minor-league version of the highly-acclaimed "Boys Town" made a decade or so earlier. Dunne started an orphanage for homeless youths (mainly newspaper boys) in St. Louis near the turn of the last century in 1905. That kind of plot could never be made today considering all the trouble the Catholic Church has had in recent years with molestation scandals. In 1948, however, no one would ever question the intentions of the no-nonsense Father Dunne as played by the sturdy O'Brien. Along for the ride in this film are the great character actors, Una O'Connor and Arthur Shields. It almost sounds like a St. Patrick's Day celebration with this group of Irish folks. Dwayne Hickman, in his early teens, plays Dunne's main juvenile delinquent orphan and, unlike Mickey Rooney in "Boys Town," his end is tragic. This film was made "on the cheap," even for RKO standards, but the players make it effective entertainment. O'Brien, Shields, and the young Hickman were all first-rate actors and their performances carry the film. "Fighting Father Dunne" didn't win any awards and is hardly remembered at all today. That's too bad because it's a fine film with a heartfelt message that can still resonate with modern-day audiences.
Bride of Frankenstein (1935)
1935's "The Bride of Frankenstein" is classic in many ways
1935's "The Bride of Frankenstein, director James Whale's sequel to his earlier smash hit "Frankenstein," is considered not only one of the great horror films of the ages, but indeed, a classic movie in any genre. Bordering on "camp" at some points, but always on "message," "The Bride.." features several holdovers from the earlier film. Colin Clive, as stiff an actor as you'll ever find, returns as the Monster's creator, Dr. Henry Frankenstein. Boris Karloff, of course, reprises his role as the Monster, but this time learns how to speak with the help of O.P. Heggie as the blind hermit. Their relationship in this film has been the subject of debate for years due to Whale's own sexual preference. Karloff's "Monster" has a rough go of it throughout the proceedings and the mad scientist (even madder than Dr. Frankenstein) Dr. Pretorius doesn't improve matters for him one bit. Pretorius (Ernest Thesiger) is portrayed as perverted, cynical and unscrupulous (and possibly Jewish) and his own experiments have to be seen to be believed. His chief goal is for Dr. Frankenstein to assist him in making a mate for Karloff so that they can create their own "race." That sounds like a great idea on paper, but doesn't translate as well in the laboratory. The mate turns out to be the most frightening and distinctively weird female image in the history of cinema. At first glance, she and Karloff look somewhat close to a match made in heaven, but their "relationship" goes to hell in a hand-basket faster than you can say "I do." It seems she doesn't like his "appearance." She obviously hasn't looked in the mirror herself lately. Before this love match takes place, Karloff is subjected to one abuse after another from the townsfolk, from the police, and from a few shots from John Carradine's rifle. In one scene, an angry mob drapes Karloff over a cross and director Whale exhibits him as almost a Christ-like figure. Between that scene and a host of others, there's enough implied imagery and symbolism in this film to keep a team of psychoanalysts busy. As for the rest of the cast, Valerie Hobson plays Henry's wife Elizabeth, replacing Mae Clarke from the first film. She's better looking but not much of an improvement in the acting category. Veteran Una O'Connor provides some much-needed comic relief as the idiotic "Minnie." It's a role she could do in her sleep. Dwight Frye (the lunatic Renfield in 1931's "Dracula") has a small but effective part as a gravedigger. Lastly, Elsa Lanchester is the "Bride" of the title and also appears as author Mary Shelley in the film's brief prologue. According to her associates, Lord Byron and Percy Shelley, little Mary has a lot of explaining to do. With some minor prodding, she soon gets the film rolling as she begins her "sequel" to the story. Without grading her on a curve, Ms. Shelley definitely deserves an A+ for originality.
Nobody's Fool (1986)
"Nobody's Fool" is unconventional comedy and love story
"Nobody's Fool" (1984), not to be confused with the later film starring Paul Newman, is an unconventional comedy with a few serious overtones. Rosanna Arquette is perfectly cast by director Evelyn Purcell in the lead role of Cassie. Living in a small Southwestern Arizona town, Cassie is lonely and depressed and bordering on madness after the break-up of her relationship with her longtime boyfriend (a very conceited Jim Youngs). She tries several comical attempts at suicide but they all come to naught. Her distracted mother (Louise Fletcher) doesn't seem to have a clue to her predicament. To make matters more complicated, Cassie was pregnant at the time of her break-up. She has the baby but puts it up for adoption. Now stuck in a dead-end job with a sympathetic co-worker (Mare Winningham), Cassie's life seems destined for the junk heap---until a Summer Stock company comes to town. She soon falls for the main technician for the troupe, Riley (Eric Roberts), but it takes her a while to admit the truth to herself. Her ex-boyfriend is beginning to show up at unexpected moments, and Cassie's heartstrings begin to pull in two different directions. Complicating the story further is that Riley doesn't seem any more stable than Cassie is. He's carrying a lot of serious baggage himself. In the meantime, Cassie decides to take on some acting classes and shines on stage in the film's penultimate moment when she performs one of Juliet's soliloquies from Shakespeare's famous play. At that point, Cassie realizes that she's come full-cycle in her formerly messed-up existence. It doesn't take her long to decide to follow Riley to Los Angeles and begin a new life. To quote the Bard, "after suffering the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune," Cassie's story has a mostly happy ending.
"Nobody's Fool" was tailor-made for the talents of star Rosanna Arquette. Alas, her career had few high points after this picture. That's probably because this film was not anything close to a box-office success. That's too bad because all the performances were excellent and the story-line had a definite 1980s feel to it. Molly Ringwald may have been the teen queen of that era, but Ms. Arquette certainly cornered the market for the twenty-somethings back then. She is at least well-remembered for that and for the band Toto's song in her honor.
Platinum Blonde (1931)
"Platinum Blonde" features the great Robert Williams
1931's "Platinum Blonde" was an early Frank Capra "talkie" and one where he was still in the development stage of his eventual brilliant career as an iconic Hollywood director. Sadly, the film is now more noted for the outstanding work of lead actor Robert Williams who died only days after the premier of the movie from appendicitis. His natural and free-flowing performance in this film was decades ahead of any actor on the scene back then and he was sure to have become a great star if he had lived. The plot revolves are Williams' character, a fast-talking and brilliant reporter, who ends up marrying rich heiress Jean Harlow (the "Platinum Blonde" of the title) even though he's quite in denial of his true love, one of his junior colleagues, the absolutely gorgeous Loretta Young. Director Capra keeps the pace moving at breakneck speed and the dialog is well-suited for Williams' talents. Ms. Harlow's wooden personality and stilted delivery actually fits her character's shallow traits. She loosens up in several bedroom scenes with Williams and the movie served her well in what was considered her "breakout" performance. But there's no one else on the planet like the 18-year-old Loretta Young. She is a goddess in this movie and she doesn't need to dye her hair "Platinum Blonde." The great Reginald Owen has a nice role as the head butler in Harlow's huge mansion. He provides Williams with an excellent foil and their scenes together are priceless. It's all handled in the soon-to-be-famous Capra style. "Platinum Blonde" isn't a classic film, but Williams' performance makes up for any deficiencies.
"Morgan!" is dated film with "Swinging London" backdrop
Offbeat director Karel Reisz was behind the camera for some noteworthy films in his day including "Saturday Night and Sunday Morning" and "The French Lieutenant's Woman." Unfortunately, his 1966 movie "Morgan!" isn't one of them. Its threadbare one-joke plot runs thin after a half hour and all that's left is some surrealism regarding the Marxists and a British fellow with a gorilla fixation. A young David Warner plays the title character. He's a fragile "artist" ready for a strait-jacket who's attempting to win back his ex-wife (Vanessa Redgrave before she became a communist) by acting like the lunatic he is. The highlight of the film is when he crashes her wedding ceremony (dressed up like a gorilla) to stiff-upper-lip Robert Stephens while their party guests have a collective fit. He then hops onto a motorbike while his costume's on fire and drives himself straight into the Thames. From there, the film quickly becomes a baffling amalgam of some Leninist babble coupled with a nonsensical and very staged mock execution. We then see Morgan led away and reappearing in an asylum for the insane tending to his "hammer and sickle" garden. His ex-wife also shows up (and pregnant) but it all may be just a figment of his lively imagination. How Ms. Redgrave secured an Academy Award nomination for Best Actress with this performance is a great Hollywood mystery that will never be solved. As for David Warner, he went on to a solid career, mostly as a character actor, and has carried on admirably in his profession despite this role. Needless to say, "Morgan!" did not make him an international star. Irene Handl is also in the cast as Morgan's mixed-up leftist/communist mother. With her parental guidance, it's no wonder he goes off the deep end. Maybe the point was that you have to be really crazy to be a communist. Viewers will find that you also have to be half-mad to sit through this entire movie. As for the "Swinging London" backdrop, it's about as exciting as Fresno on a bad day. "Morgan!" is a dated embarrassment to be seen by the curious only.